Good Intentions, Damaging Impact: Taking a second look at the role of NGOs
The torrential downpour began to subside just as the Moken village leader relived that horrific winter day in 2004. "The tsunami took 30 percent of our village," he said. "We are now only 273 people."
Mokens are a semi-nomadic people, who over time settled in the coastal regions of Burma and Thailand. They rely on fish for trade and nourishment, but only through traditional methods - spears. Over time, Moken people have biologically adapted to fishing culture; studies from Sweden's Lund University suggest that Moken people have the ability to see clams and sea cucumbers at great distances and hold their breath for up to five minutes due to adaptation.
The Moken village is in the region of Phang Nga, Thailand's hardest-hit region during the 2004 tsunami. News sources speculate that an estimated 4,000 lives were taken that day almost 9 years ago. The village is in the city of Khao Lak, only 100 km north of Phuket. The region rests by the Andaman Sea, and is known for its exclusive beach resorts and mountainous terrain.
After the Tsunami, the Moken village was approached by a NGO regarding housing replacement. Instead of accommodating the Moken villagers, the NGO built western houses. When asked about the rebuilding process, the village elder kept it simple; "They didn't ask us what we wanted, and now we can't use these houses."
Almost a decade after the Tsunami, several western houses made with tin roofs and brick development are slowly decaying as Moken villagers utilize these structures as their local dumpster.
The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition country report titled 'Impact of the Tsunami Response on Local and National Capacities' states "Many [in the Moken village] did not want the standard houses offered by most relief organizations, and they did not receive support from the government."
Traditionally, the Moken people build homes out of natural materials (logs, leaves, vines) and are thus very affordable. The homes made by international NGOs, however, are not conducive to their lifestyle and thus are of no use to the Moken people.
This incident, similar to many in the developing world, shines a light on failures of NGOs. When an international charity organization lacks communication and organization with the community in need, they have failed the community in need. The western culture of NGOs clashes with the cultural norms of societies they are trying to assist. This Moken village is unfortunately a victim of irresponsible development.
There must be clarity regarding the NGOs intentions, and cultural fluency when dealing with development work of any kind.
We, global citizens, must hold NGOs up to higher standards. Every mandate for any non-for-profit should explicitly state the ways in which their work will sustainably heal their targeted communities.
The Moken village of Khao Lak, Thailand had only three requests upon my visit; candy for the children, school supplies, and money for their cultural center. Even with their worsening housing situation, their main goal is to preserve their dying mythology, language and dance.
"[When the tsunami hit] we ran for the hills," the village leader explained. And upon their return, the Moken people had to fight for their land. "First, our land was used as a hospital site to help victims of the Tsunami. Then, we had to fight off people who wanted to build resorts."
After the Tsunami, the Moken people faced an uphill battle against hoteliers regarding land disputes. The Tsunami wiped occupied beaches clean, and thus made that land prime real estate—if developers could keep indigenous peoples from returning to their destroyed villages.
In 2006, a National Sub Committee on Land was created to acknowledge displaced communities that were engaged in land disputes. Unfortunately only 6 out of the 20 recognized cases were resolved that year. The Moken people luckily reside on their land.
Now, the Moken people are focusing on growing and promoting their cultural center. During my visit, toddlers did a traditional Moken dance. And even if they suffer from a generational age-gap (most young and old people perished in the Tsunami), the Moken people are doing their best to make a living while preserving Moken culture.